A better Life.

I recently watched this video of Marcio Donaldson’s performance on American Idol. His backstory transported me back to my own story of how a baby transformed my world. Like Donaldson, my mother did the best she could but ultimately my siblings and I ended up in the system. I was 11 and my sister was 10. Unlike Donaldson though, the reason we ended up in the system wasn’t due to drugs but rather abuse. Donaldson and I both shared a deep knowledge of the near impossibility of breaking the cycle. When faced with the prospect of becoming a parent, I knew there was a high probability I would become an abuser. I grew up in environments strife with abuse, it’s a part of the cycle — the abused become the abuser. And so I did everything in my power to break the cycle — I went to therapy, I read books, I joined groups, etc. I wanted to give my baby a better life.

Those first few days in the hospital were a blur but my memories of the awe I felt upon seeing this magical little being in the world cannot possibly be captured by photos or words. I stared endlessly at this little beauty — completely captivated. Her sweet little cheeks and lips and cute little nose and eyes. I was in awe of the magnificence of this tiny little creature. I nursed, burped, and swaddled her the way the nurses taught me. When finished, I gently placed her little purple knit hat on her head and carefully put her back in the hospital bassinet. Drifting in and out of sleep I would just stare at her as she slept and sometimes place my hand on her tiny chest so I could feel it rise and fall with her breath. I just wanted to be near her. I was completely awestruck as I watched this little wonder that I had brought into the world.

One day as Hannah lay in her bassinet a nurse walked into my room and exclaimed, “oh my isn’t she beautiful! I bet you can’t stop hugging and kissing her!” Then she hurried over and took my vitals and left to complete her rounds.

It was then that it hit me, I had never once kissed my daughter. She was a few days old and it had never occurred to me to kiss her or cuddle her — that wasn’t in any of the books I had read. At that moment I picked her up, not to feed her or burp her or change her diaper but just to hold her tiny precious body close and gave her a kiss. From that day forward, I have not stopped kissing and hugging my daughter. I am beyond grateful for that nurse’s words but, more than that, I am grateful to finally have had the opportunity to learn about family and love.

As the days turned into months I developed a deep desire for this little bundle of beautiful girl to believe that she could do anything she wanted to do. As I reflected on my life, where I had been, the things I had experienced and seen, I began to have this sort of “aha” moment. I realized that if I wanted her to believe she could achieve her dreams, I would have to achieve mine. Like Donaldson, who was inspired by his new baby boy to pursue his dream, to demonstrate what is possible, and to give his son a better life, I set out to do the same for my daughter. I pursued my dream and went back to school full-time as a single mother. Just a community college but I finally finished my Associate’s Degree. It would be another couple of years before I pursued a BA and even more years before I convinced myself I could dare to dream of a PhD. Hannah has been here this whole time, growing up by my side with hugs and kisses and watching me achieve my dreams.

Like Donaldson, I was not “technically perfect” when I attempted to enter the world of academic research. My CV had glaring holes and my transcript fell far short of the GPA of my academic peers. Somehow, through all of that, professors saw something and encouraged me forward. Kaye Peterman was the first one to give me a chance to work in her lab. I didn’t love plants but I did love research. The next summer Liz Spelke let me work in her lab. I’m not sure what she saw, or if it was due to Mandana’s persistent pestering, but Liz gave me my first chance in the field I came to love. And though I’m still not “technically perfect” and I’m slow and insecure and my transcript is less than stellar, my current advisors — Rebecca Saxe and Nancy Kanwisher — continue to give me the room and space to grow and learn and develop my skills. Slowly but surely, I am accomplishing my dreams and daring to dream even bigger ones.

Even more importantly than my academic achievements, my goal for Hannah’s life is becoming a reality. Her life is so different than mine was. I broke the cycle — I never became the abuser I was scared of. Rather, Hannah has a deep sense of knowing she matters, her dreams are possible, and she is loved. Hannah’s world has involved lab meetings in the labs of great scientists — Liz Spelke, Rebecca Saxe, and Nancy Kanwisher. She knows Laura Schulz not only as a scientist at MIT but also as her friend’s mother. At the age of 8 she presented in a room full of academic researchers and has been encouraged by the likes of Gabriel Kreiman, Josh Tenenbaum, and Tomaso Poggio, not to mention many, many incredible postdocs, graduate students, and undergrads. Hannah walks around the campus of MIT with confidence and excitement and so much laughter. My daughter is part of a world as a child that I never even knew existed until I was in my thirties. She loves science and math and politics. When she grows up, she wants to be an archeologist or an architect, a supreme court justice or the president, a construction worker or an engineer, a scientist or a mathematician. She fully believes that all of these professions are within her reach and she can do whatever she wants to do. I know she is only 9 and there is still a lifetime of parenting left to do. I know I have not yet finished accomplishing my dreams and she has yet to start accomplishing hers. But when I see my daughter dance around our apartment or run around MIT, completely comfortable in her skin, I feel like I have given her a gift that I cannot even fully give myself yet — the gift of dreaming and believing that there isn’t any dream too big. Hannah has a better life.


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